Coherence and the textual function in “The curious incident of the dog in the night-time”

Term Paper 2008 18 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theory
2.1 The need for a functional grammar
2.2 The textual meaning of a clause
2.2.1 The Theme-Rheme system
2.2.2 Cohesion

3. Analysis
3.1 What gets to be Theme
3.2 choice of topical Theme
3.3 Markedness of Theme choices
3.4 Method of development

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

6. Appendix

1. Introduction

“Wherever we look, we see language constituting the world […], not just reflecting it. For instance, the words for colours make a reality, they don’t just name things which are ‘there’: the spectrum isn’t divided into seven primary colours; all the colours merge into one another.”[1]

According to structural linguistics, by using language, we are not reflecting a given reality but are rather construing one. Systemic functional grammar, developed by M. A. K. Halliday, states just this construal feature of language as well: That language functions to make meanings (and not to only refer to the outside world). But furthermore elaborates on how a text makes those meanings. It focuses therefore on the functional description of language.

The basic assumption is that language use is always functional: “people do not ‘just talk’ or ‘just write’”[2] but rather any use of language serves a specific purpose, namely to make meanings. The primary concern of systemic functional linguistics can therefore be summed up under the questions: “How is language structured for use?”[3] How does it make meanings?

According to Halliday, language makes meanings on three different levels simultaneously: on the experiental level, because it represents experience, on the interpersonal level, because language is used to interact with each other and on the textual level, because we organize our message somehow.

This research paper will focus on the textual metafunction of language, which is the theory of the clause being organized as a message. The aim is to show that text itself construes the context by involving meaningful choices concerning what to put in thematic position and by means of cohesion. Thus, context is not only created through coherence, i.e. the outside knowledge of the text and the cultural context of it, but a huge part of the context can be gathered from the text itself. As Eggins states: “The choices realised in text are themselves the realization of contextual dimensions.”[4]

2. Theory

2.1 The need for a functional grammar

As stated above, we are concerned with the meaning of a text, i.e. the semantics of language. But in order to achieve this goal, we do this not by interpreting the text but rather by explaining it: “While the interpretation of a text would aim to uncover and state WHAT a text means, the systemic analysis of a text aims to uncover and state HOW a text means.”[5] In order to be able to explain a text, we thus require a functional grammar.

According to Halliday, language is a unified system, for lexis and grammar cannot be divided. That is, that a word cannot be seen in isolation since it has not only semantic associations but also some grammatical function. Hence Halliday speaks of lexico-grammar. To analyse a text according to his theory, Halliday developed a corresponding functional grammar.

2.2 The textual meaning of a clause

2.2.1 The Theme-Rheme system

The textual function is often referred to as the enabling metafuntion of language since it is concerned with the creation of text:

“[the textual function] is what enables the speaker or writer to construct ‘texts’, or connected passages of discourse that is situationally relevant; and enables the listener or reader to distinguish a text from a random set of sentences”[6]

Thus it renders possible to organize a message according to our purpose or desired function. A simple sentence as “I have seen you last Sunday” can get a different meaning if rearranged to “Last Sunday I have seen you” or even “You I have seen last Sunday”. Even though the experiental and interpersonal meaning of the sentence does not change, it seems to convey a different message. This leads us to the system of Theme and Rheme. The thematic structure of a clause can be described as consisting of two parts: the Theme and the Rheme. The Theme is the constituent that is indicated by front position in a clause and therefore serves as a point of departure for the message. The Rheme simply consist of everything following the Theme and serves as a development for the Theme.[7]

The single Theme of a clause can be defined as the first constituent that is experiental in function, that means it is either actor, process or circumstance. This can also be a phrase complex consisting of for instance two or more noun phrases. Whenever there are elements preceding the experiental element, these elements together form a multiple theme. In these cases, the theme extends from the beginning up to the point, where the first experiental element occurs.[8]

The author has the choice of selecting any element in the clause as thematic and to therefore decide what is being talked about. By rephrasing the sentence “I have seen you last Sunday.” to “Last Sunday I have seen you.” the focus is on something that happened last Sunday and not on something that I did. It serves the purpose to talk about last Sunday and therefore creates the background, the setting of the text. In other words, the selection of the theme involves a meaningful choice that creates context.

A theme can either be marked or unmarked. An unmarked theme, usually the subject of a clause, simply means the most typical order of elements in a clause. A marked theme would be something that involves an unusual order of elements in the clause, as for instance the rearranged form “Last Sunday I have seen you”, which puts the prepositional phrase in thematic position and therefore puts a special emphasis to this theme.

In addition to experiental themes, which are called topical themes, there can also be textual and interpersonal themes. Textual themes are constituents that are textual in function. That is, they relate clauses or structure the discourse. Those can be conjunctions, conjunctive adjuncts, or continuatives. Interpersonal themes, such as Vocatives, which are personal names or anything used to address, Modal comment adjuncts or finite verbal operators, express some kind of mood.

The reason that a multiple theme, that is a theme consisting of one topical theme and (other optional) interpersonal or topical themes, has to contain an experiental element can be derived from the very definition of a theme. Since the theme

a) is what the clause is going to be about and

b) involves a meaningful choice,

it becomes obvious, that an experiental element serves best for both purposes. An actor, process or circumstance contributes more to the message of a clause than a textual or interpersonal element. Furthermore experiental elements have a maximum choice of order and thus contribute the most significant changes to a text. For instance, some textual elements, e.g. continuatives and conjunctions are inherently thematic, that is, by nature of language they appear in first position in a clause and therefore do not involve any meaningful choices. With interpersonal elements there is slightly more choice, since they are often characteristically thematic, i.e. they very frequently take thematic position. But with experiental themes there is a maximum freedom of choice and therefore they are attributed the maximum thematic potential.

2.2.2 Cohesion

Another feature of the textual function to create meaning and to structure language for a specific use is the means of cohesion. Cohesion is just like coherence used to bind clauses in a text together and to give them unity. But whereas coherence is concerned with contextual properties that are retrieved from the social and cultural context in which a text is used, cohesion focuses on the internal properties of a text. Cohesion can thus be thought of as all grammatical and lexical links that link one part of a text to another: “Cohesion occurs where the INTERPRETATION of some element in the discourse is dependent on that of another”[9]. It is therefore described as the “semantic tie”[10] between two elements.


[1] Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. “Structuralism”. Manchester: University Press, 2002, p.44.

[2] Eggins, Suzanne. An introduction to systemic functional linguistics. London: Pinter Publisher Ltd, 1994. p.5

[3] ibid. p.3

[4] ibid. p.307

[5] ibid. p.309

[6] Ed. de Joia, Alex/ Stenton, Adrian. Terms in Systemic Linguistics: A Guide to Halliday. London: Batsford Academic and Educational Ltd, 1980. p.50

[7] cf Halliday, M. A. K., Matthiessen, C. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. 3rd ed. London and New York: Arnold, 2004. p. 64

[8] cf ibid. p.85

[9] Eggins, Suzanne. An introduction to systemic functional linguistics. p.29

[10] ibid. p. 30


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University of Münster – Englisches Seminar
systemic functional linguistics textual function coherence cohesion theme rheme halliday



Title: Coherence and the textual function   in   “The curious incident of the dog in the night-time”